A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
I was delighted to be given the chance to interview Zoë on the publication of Frail Human Heart, the conclusion to her epic urban fantasy trilogy, In the Name of the Blade. For those who have read The Night Itself and Darkness Hidden, Frail Human Heart needs no introduction, but if you haven’t discovered these books yet (and you should!), you can look forward to an incredible mash-up of fast action, heart-wrenching emotion and Japanese folklore set against a stunning London backdrop. Those of us who read and write YA have been lucky enough to witness the We Need Diverse Books movement take a real hold in recent months, and one of the things I admire about Zoë’s writing is her ability to weave in characters from many different walks of life who represent humanity as it really is – in all our diverse wonder. The trilogy’s heroine, Mio, is British-born Japanese, her best friend Jack is gay, and there are also genderfluid characters who appear later in the trilogy. There will be teenagers who read In the Name of the Blade and see themselves represented in the pages of a book – perhaps for the first time ever. And I think that’s pretty amazing. As Zoë researched and wrote the books, she created an amazing series of Pinterest boards – go and have a look!
KM: I love the new-look covers for the trilogy and how Mio is represented as a dynamic and powerful character. How important was it to you that Mio comes across this way on the jacket? Did you get much say in the cover design and the interpretation of Mio?
ZM: Thank you! And it was incredibly important to me. I loved my original cover for The Night Itself because it was an illustration and so there was no problem representing the character as the correct age, ethnicity, etc. When I was told that the new covers would most likely be photographic, I felt the chill creep of fear. I have looked for stock photographs of people of colour to use in book trailers or for my Pinterest boards – and not only are there relatively few pictures of young Asian women, what’s out there is often exploitive, fetishising, or flat-out embarrassing, especially if you add a sword into the mix too.
Luckily my cover designer at Walker Books, Maria, is – if you’ll excuse the Nandos-Speak – a legend. We had a meeting and she had pulled loads of images, photos and illustrations, right off my Pinterest board. We talked about how Mio HAD to be represented as a normal teenager, wearing normal teenager clothes, how she had to be badass, not sexy. Walker books have never whitewashed any of my covers, so I wasn’t concerned that would happen, but I put a vote in for her wearing Converse and jeans or leggings, since she never wears a skirt in the whole trilogy – and Maria agreed enthusiastically. The possibility of a photoshoot was mentioned, which got me very excited, but by the time we’d finished talking I knew that even if there wasn’t the budget for it, Maria would find something that really worked.
Later on, after there was indeed a photoshoot (with Larry Rostant!) and I saw the photos and the rough designs for the covers, I raised an issue with the cover of FRAIL HUMAN HEART. Mio’s body was mostly eclipsed by the swirly fire between her and Shinobu’s bodies, and the positioning of the dragon, and this made Shinobu look too prominent – like the main character. I felt a bit ungrateful for complaining when the photos were so amazing, but Maria got what I was talking about straight away and the next version of the cover had dialled back the fire and shifted the dragon so that it was clear Mio was the focus of the cover. I was and still am thrilled and amazed with the way the new look for the trilogy turned out.
KM: Darkness Hidden is quite different in tone to The Night Itself and Frail Human Heart – much more reflective and very focused on the growing love between Mio and Shinobu. Did you have a favourite book out of the three, or did you enjoy writing all of them in different ways?
ZM: I don’t think I can pick a favourite – and I’m not just saying that! The experience of writing each book was so different.
THE NIGHT ITSELF practically skipped out of me. The initial draft took only four months. I’ve never written anything that fast before. The process was almost pure fun, just throwing stuff at the page and seeing what stuck, going wild with ideas, scattering one-liners like confetti. I’ll always have a soft spot for it because of that. The second book was where it sunk in what a challenge I had taken on – why on earth did I think I knew how to write a trilogy?! – and it was really, really hard work. I was determined not to end on a true cliff-hanger, and had to teach myself how to write a complete story that had self-contained character and plot arcs but also fit within a much larger story. DARKNESS HIDDEN had four different beginnings before one worked, and I’m sure my editor must have wanted to strangle me at times. I’m very proud that we finally figured it out. And the final book was a mixture of the first two – bursts of absolute joy as I finally got to pull out all the stops, let loose, unfold character revelations and plot twists I’d been planning for four years – but also sheer hard graft as I dug in to get it done, and done right, and not mess everything up at that stage. Striving to be objective, I think FRAIL HUMAN HEART is probably my best work to date, on a technical level – but only time will tell!
KM: Obviously London has a huge part to play in the trilogy, as we’ve discussed before http://katymoran.co.uk/2013/08/wow-its-the-amazing-zoe-marriott/ – but those fantasy dreamscapes! My God, they’re amazing. How do you fantasy authors do it? Where does it all come from? Do the fantasy landscapes have their roots in places you have seen in real life or perhaps read about?
ZM: Fantasy landscapes are one of my absolute favourite things to write. They are the delicious desert that makes eating your vegetables (writing exposition and transitions) worth it. Most of them seem to spin themselves out from a couple of images or ideas that collide in my head – like blue light glowing though ice, and an image of manta rays swimming overhead within an aquarium tunnel – and suddenly I’m almost overwhelmed with sensory details of how a hollow glacier filled with flying fish would sound, feel, smell, the atmosphere as you moved through such a place. It’s as if these landscapes already exist in some parallel dimension somewhere and I’m being allowed to see them in my mind.
For FRAIL HUMAN HEART I was practically slavering at the chance to create the dream world because all that mattered was that it be beautiful and savage and vaguely linked to the id of my characters. None of it had to make sense! I could do whatever I wanted! I started hoarding images of poisonous jellyfish, spotted squids, ice caverns, waterfalls, glaciers and underground cave systems, literally years in advance. They’re all there on my Pinterest board for the trilogy https://www.pinterest.com/redzolah/the-name-of-the-blade-trilogy/ . The only difficult thing was holding myself back a bit, because I wanted to include everything, every image and detail that I thought of, and my editor had to prise a few things out of my hands and firmly remind me that I was writing a novel, not a travelogue to my made up world.
KM: One of the things that really blew me away about the trilogy was the fascinating and brilliant treatment of gender fluidity – I don’t want to give away too much – but what gave you the idea to develop this idea? Is it part of the original Japanese folklore?
ZM: It is, indeed, part of the original folklore, and this is why the Kitsune are one of my favourite mythical creatures. The stories about them don’t flat out say that they’re genderfluid, but in several tales a mortal character might be seduced by a beautiful young woman, and then later given advice by a wizened old man, and in the end it will be revealed that both these people were the same Kitsune. It only seemed logical to me that creatures who were able to move between different bodies so easily and lived for thousands of years would evolve a culture where gender was barely more important than your hairdo, and where everyone was pansexual. Kind of Utopian, really, if it weren’t for the setbacks of being immortal!
KM: What’s next on the agenda? Can you tell us anything about upcoming projects, or is everything all top secret at the moment? **gnaws fists in desperate anticipation**
ZM: I’ve actually already finished and submitted my next book, which is a companion novel to Shadows on the Moon, set in Tsuki no Hikaru no Kuni, my fairytale version of Japan. It’s a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, where our hero is a resolute young village girl who enters the dark woods to hunt and kill a monster, but finds that things in the cursed forest are very different than she had expected. Right now it’s titled Barefoot on the Wind, and I hope I can persuade my editor to let me keep that title!
After that I’ve got two more projects that have been simmering at the back of my mind for a while. One of them is a timeslip story where a story of romance and murder unfolds across two different times – the 1920’s and the modern day – linked by a mysterious and beautiful town on the edge of the sea: Winterthorne. The other, which I’m hip-deep in researching now, is a retelling of of Mulan that imagines Mulan as a young trans man struggling to secure his rightful place as a warrior in his chaotic world.
KM: Thank you, Zoë, for taking the time to answer my questions!
YA novelist Zoë Marriott lives on the bleak and windy East coast of Britain, in a house crowded with books, cats, and an eccentric sprocker named Finn (also known as the Devil Hound). Her folklore and fairytale inspired fantasy novels are critically acclaimed and have been nominated for many awards, even winning a few, including a USBBY Outstanding International Book listing for The Swan Kingdom and a Junior Library Guild Selection and the prestigious Sasakawa Prize for Shadows on the Moon. In 2015 the release ofFrail Mortal Heart will complete her epic urban fantasy trilogy, The Name of the Blade, a tale of Kitsune, Kami and katanas. Zoë is proud to be represented by Nancy Miles of the Miles Stott Children’s Literacy Agency.
Katy wrote her first novel at the age of 10 (a fantasy epic, of course), and grew up to work in a bookshop, followed by 2 different publishing houses before ending up as a desk editor at Scholastic Children’s Books. She jumped ship in early 2007 and her first novel, Bloodline, was published in 2008. Her latest book, Hidden Among Us, was published in March 2013 with a sequel to follow in 2014.